From our archive: An interview with Saul Williams by Richard Howard

slamSaul Williams is a poet, hip-hop M.C., producer and actor who first came to prominence through his victory at the poetry Grand Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café in 1996. This event kick-started an acting career for Williams with the lead role in the feature film Slam in 1998, and a music career in which Williams began to blend his poetry with his love of hip-hop. What makes Williams’ work interesting from a science fiction standpoint is the obvious affinity he has with the genre, evident in his lyrics and the soundscapes that he chooses to rhyme over. From the outset, Williams wrote and produced with a speculative bent. In the song ‘Ohm’ from 1998’s Lyricist Lounge compilation, Williams announced ‘I am no Earthling, I drink moonshine on Mars/And mistake meteors for stars ‘cause I can’t hold my liquor/But I can hold my breath and ascend like wind to the black hole/And play galaxaphones on the fire escapes of your soul’. The glimmering production on ‘Ohm’ is no less science fictional, especially as it accelerates at around the three-minute mark.

From the hip-hop artists that Williams as his lineage, it is clear that Williams is not so much bucking a trend in subject matter in hip-hop as tapping into a vein already in existence. From Rammellzee to the Ultramagnetic M.C.s, Outkast to Big K.R.I.T., hip-hop has always been a forward-looking, future-oriented genre. This futurist attitude is embodied in the slang term ‘the next shit’, a phrase that describes a new way of creating that seems to appear from out of nowhere, but points the way towards future developments in the form. The novum, then, is no less an organising principle in hip-hop as it is in science fiction.

Williams’s newest project Martyrloserking is his fifth album and his most explicitly science fictional to date. The album imagines a near-future Burundi where the titular Martyrloserking (Williams came up with the name after hearing a French pronunciation of Martin Luther King) has a set up a self-sufficient society on a dump for old computer parts. Williams intends to tell the story across many media, with plans for more music, a graphic novel and a feature film.

The following conversation, conducted between a sound check and a performance at Dublin’s Sugar Club on 30/6/2016, attempts to hone in on Williams’s engagement with science fiction, covering Martyrloserking in its musical, graphic and film forms, colonialism, the power of poetry, science fiction’s influence on the hip-hop underground, Octavia Butler and Afrofuturism.

Richard Howard: First, could you explain the concept behind Martyrloserking?

Saul Williams: The concept behind Martyrloserking is quite simple. It’s based in the most advanced tech hub on the continent of Africa. It’s situated in a country named Burundi. So the story is pulling from reality and bleeding out from there. I chose Burundi primarily for its relationship to the Great Lakes region of Central or Eastern Africa where you have Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya. But in the first three mentioned you have essentially the same people who have been there for thousands of years and it’s in many ways the cradle of civilisation, the source of the Nile is there and all that stuff and, imagination runs wild there, because you think about the fact that European colonisers entered that place last. They didn’t arrive until like 1900. And what they found was a democracy. A democracy that they twisted, through colonisation, the will to power, capitalism, exploitation and religion. And so the Germans and Belgians came in and essentially set up the way they would do business, who they would talk to, who they wouldn’t talk to, and beyond that, with the missionaries came the idea of some of the people there being related to what’s written about in the bible. So the ancient Egyptians and ancient Semites and all this stuff. So they planted this story within an already existing story. And when then that story spun forward it brought about genocides and all this crazy shit. All brought about by people ingesting this biblical science fiction.

RH: So this is the context for your own version of the story.

SW: Yes. Martyrloserking is the screen name of a hacker who lives in Martyrloserkingdom, which is a tech hub, which is built on a camp where old techware goes to die. Old monitors and motherboards and all this shit. This dude arrives there, having run away from the coltan mine that he was working in. We know that coltan is responsible for distributing power through all circulatory objects, so computers, smartphones right? And I love the idea of the distribution of power through virtual realms. So this guy flees from the mine and he arrives at the camp and it’s the beginning of rainy season and just out of necessity, he builds a shelter out of computer waste products. So he inspires the building of this village, Martyrloserkingdom, which is a village built out of old computer parts. There are some tech people living there, engineers and what have you, who have figured out how to make a few things work. And not just computers. There’s a generator that runs on urine for instance.

RH: There’s 3D printing technology as well isn’t there?

SW: Yeah there’s a guy there who builds a 3D printer, and the utility of that is that what happens at these mines is that, when rebels want to make a statement against the powers, if they can’t reach the powers they attack the miners. So, to make a statement to the powers they’ll cut off the hands of some miners, or some arms. And so, this 3D printer is printing hands and arms and so there’s a lot of cyber people there.

The mastermind of all this is Martyrloserking, who grew up on a hill where coltan was discovered. He believes his power comes from the fact that he grew up sleeping on coltan, and playing with it as a kid, running his hands in it. So, by the time he got to the stage of touching a computer he just understood it at its root. He is the root. Another thing he connects to that is this old man he met as a kid who told him a story about the Dogon. The Dogon are from Mali, West Africa. In their cosmology, they come from Sirius. They charted Sirius. Way before NASA or any telescopes saw it, they saw it. It was doubted for years until NASA scientists discovered, and were like, wow they right, I don’t know how they saw that. Also, the Dogon’s numerological system is binary. Martyrloserking learned this as a kid. So that’s another thing. He understood coding immediately, as well as how to see Sirius with the naked eye.

From there he connects with a person names Neptunefrost, who is from Uganda and is a modem. And that is where our story begins.

RH: You’re also working on a graphic novel.

SW: Yeah. This whole story I’m telling you exists linearly as a graphic novel called Martyrloserking that will come out next year.

RH: What artists are you working with for the graphic novel?

SW: I’ve worked with two artists: Ronald Wimberley and Morgan Sorne.

RH: What is it about the graphic form that attracted you?

SW: Well, I’ve written books of poetry before. I think of all the things you’re allowed to do with a book of poetry. I think of all the worlds that are of interest to me. The thing about poetry is that sometimes it only speaks to people in the world of poetry. But in a book of poetry, if you look at the page as a stage, there’s a lot that you can play with, in terms of phrasing and the way that words and thoughts appear on a page. It becomes experiential. It can be design. Poetry is design in many ways. So because of that there’s an entry point for me into the graphic novel form. What I like about graphic novels are the tangents that you’re allowed to go on. So if you and I having this conversation were a panel in a graphic novel, there could be graffiti on the wall and that graffiti could be the poem. And I could put an emblem on your sweater, or some words on the sleeve and that could also be poem. I realised how layered it could be in terms of presentation and images. Images within images. Words within images. It’s more to play with.

And I’d gotten to that point through words. Mainly through science fiction. What I have enjoyed about science fiction from the time I dove in was how it opened my natural space. If I were reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons or whatever, as I’m walking down the street, I’m thinking of the shit that I just read and the world feels a little larger. I’d be thinking that there’s more layers, parallel universes and so forth. It has enhanced my view of possibilities. It’s kind of like film in a way. Great writers leave space, and that gap in between is your understanding.

RH: That could also relate to the gap between science fiction and our world and thinking the difference between them.

SW: Yeah. Murakami did it recently with his last book [1Q84]. I know he’s not known as a science fiction writer. I think it’s his last book, where the parallel universe is so close.

RH: There’s also a link between the graphic novel and visual technology you use for your live show isn’t there?

SW: I’m working with this designer. He’s a hacker. I’ve never met him personally. But he’s in the desert in Mexico, and he’s built this software that he’s still needling with and we can add text and images, glitch moving images and all this stuff. It’s like a live journal that bleeds into the graphic novel.

But there’s also a film. The graphic novel was the imagined end point, even though I was simultaneously working on it as a musical play. After talking to producers, the idea of a play was pushed into the idea of a film. The graphic novel acts as kind of storyboard for the film. But they each follow a different character’s perspectives of the same story. We’ll be shooting the film in Ethiopia, Rwanda and we might also shoot some in Haiti.

RH: How close is our world to the Burundi you’ve written about? Is this a near future or far future?

SW: It’s a near future. It’s a parallel world that is commenting on the world that is parallel to them: our world. So, it’s near future.

RH: What’s your connection to Burundi? Have you travelled there?

SW: No. I do a lot of travelling and I’m trying to flex something and have my own excitement around seeing what I find there. It’s fun to take something from some place and connect it to something from somewhere else. My wife is Rwandan and as a muse she has definitely served as an entry point. It’s a process of not just sight but insight into something that may feel obvious, that you may feel like you already get and understand. But the actual mapping of the space brings new insight and new ideas and all that.

But, by happenstance, I can’t go to Burundi right now because of what’s going on there. So that’s interesting that the process of writing about this stuff has brought on this parallel reality that is extremely real. I’d relate that to poetry. Poetry has this alchemical relationship to reality. Anyone who involves themselves in any way with poetry knows that there’s something that it allows. A shifting perspective or emotion. There’s a manoeuvring in poetry. You realise you’re controlling something as you would VR. You realise you can do other things. You can fly. You don’t have to eat. There’s tonnes of stuff you can do with a poem and in a poem.

RH: As a hip-hop listener and science fiction reader, I’ve always heard a connection between your work and the genre. I think the first song I heard by you was ‘Ohm’ on the Lyricist Lounge compilation and there was something about, not only the lyrics, but also the production that made me sense that connection.

SW: It’s because I was reading a bunch of science fiction novels. That was the beginning of me getting really into science fiction. Literature-wise, before that I’d been more into fiction, I’d gone through a mystery phase, an autobiography phase. I also studied philosophy so I’d read a lot of that, and I was simultaneously getting into a lot of Eastern philosophy. At the same time I was getting into Eastern philosophy and meditation and what have you, I was reading a lot of science fiction. I probably started with Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

RH: Okay. That definitely has an element of mysticism to it as well.

SW: Yeah. And then I got really deep into Octavia Butler. But I was also reading a lot of the stuff I felt I had to read, like Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick or even Thomas Pynchon. Then trying out some of the new stuff. Even something like Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but that’s more horror I suppose.

RH: But definitely relatable to what we talked about earlier regarding the placement of words on the pages.

SW: Yeah it was interesting in terms of structure.

RH: Okay, so as I said, I’ve always connected your music to science fiction, so when I heard the song ‘Grippo’ from your 2004 Saul Williams album it really grabbed my attention. In the song you say ‘I gave hip-hop to white boys when nobody was looking/they found it locked in a basement when they gentrified Brooklyn/left a list of instructions, M.P.C. and a mic/my sci-fi library and utensils to write’. It’s almost as if you’re saying science fiction is an integral part of hip hop music, almost a disregarded element.

SW: Well if you look at mid-nineties hip-hop and the birth of the underground and labels like Rawkus and Def Jux, and artists like El-p and Aesop Rock. They all had science fictional elements. Of course, even before that there was so many people doing far-out spacy stuff from Divine Styler to Dark Feather Collective in LA. People that were going far out. But when I think of those guys from the mid-nineties, there was a lot of Philip K. Dick influence there. Especially in El-p and I liked it. In ‘Grippo’ I was kind of joking about that.

RH: I’ve heard you talk about the song ‘Grippo’ being your idea of what a future style of music would sound like.

SW: Yeah. It was on or just before a mushroom trip. We bought this indigo blue, brought it home from the store, tried it, and spent nine hours on this rug that felt like a magic carpet. It was winter in New York. We had gone to the record store beforehand. I had a friend with me and we’d bought some vinyl. I was expecting a kid at the time. My daughter was on her way, and we were talking about what kind of music our kids would listen to. One of us said ‘Grippo’, and we started trying to describe it saying ‘it’s going to be really fast, electronic, like punk and it’s going to have all this energy’. Some years later, I’m working on a song. I’m living in LA, downtown in a loft at that time. My daughter is there, it’s a Saturday morning. She must be about five or six. I’m working on music with headphones on and my daughter is there watching cartoons. There’s a commercial break, so I turn on my speakers just to hear the beat and my daughter just gets up and starts dancing to it. So that’s how Grippo became ‘Grippo’.

RH: You mentioned Octavia Butler a moment ago. Where did you come across her work?

SW: What’s cool about that is I came across her more related to a path concerning African-American literature. I had gone through a deep exploration of reading Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Pearl Cleage. So that was the beginning of getting turned onto some highly interesting womanist perspectives in literature and The Temple of my Familiar, which is the sequel to Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple, is science fiction. It’s subtle as fuck, but it’s beautiful. I read that when I was seventeen and that was the beginning for me. She poked a world and Octavia Butler did that with Kindred, although that’s not the first example of connecting slavery and other worlds. That happens a lot in what I call unimaginative science fiction. We imagine other worlds and we just project our world onto it, so we imagine they’re coming to colonise us, they want to make us slaves, they need our resources. But if it’s higher intelligence, maybe it wouldn’t involve so much violence.

RH: So something like Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy would be a more nuanced take on that relationship.

SW: Yeah. When she started saying shit like, in Imago, where she’s like describing how the human species, which is no longer human, had developed. With arms and tentacles and antennae and all this stuff growing out of us. She explains that we had been trying to adapt and evolve for ages, but we had gotten it wrong and it had turned into cancer. We had continually tried to burn the cancer out, with chemo or whatever. We always tried to burn it out, but we didn’t realise that it was our species trying to evolve until we began watering our cancers. She talks about the process of watering your cancer. From that point on I began looking for that in literature. So then it’s like going to sci fi sections of stores or talking to friends and being like ‘yo, point me in the direction of stuff like that.’ But it also relates to poetry as well, because to live one’s life writing poetry is sci fi in a capitalist society.

RH: You mention friends recommending books, which reminds me of something. I saw an interview with Pharaoh Monche where he said that Talib Kweli introduced him to Octavia Butler’s work.

SW: Well, I bought all those books from Talib. Talib worked in a bookstore called Nkiru Books in Brooklyn. I’d just moved into the neighbourhood and began seeking out a local bookstore and found Nkiru Books. Talib was working there and we would get into small discussions about literature. Why? Because it was rare for me to see a dude my age working in this small-ass bookstore that was basically a converted apartment in a brownstone building. And he was cool. He worked in a bookstore, he was nerdy, but he was cool. We were getting into African literature there, which is a whole other realm of science fiction. Like Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Kweli was really into Ayi Kwei Armah from Ghana and Octavia Butler. I met Octavia Butler in that bookstore in fact.

RH: Did you have a conversation with her?

SW: [Laughs] No. I just said ‘could you sign this for me?’ I didn’t take a picture.

RH: Would you align your own work with the term Afrofuturism at all?

SW: I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t stop people from doing it. I mean, it happens. I would probably be upset if I weren’t included in whatever that is, because it speaks directly to me and I know exactly what’s happening there. So I’m part of the experience, I’m just dancing around terms. Also because, well, redundance is necessary at times. With, you know, Afropunk or whatever. But I mean, you could just say punk, because we know Bad Brains, we know what they brought to the game. It’s the same thing with futurism. But what’s great about the term is the importance of the imagination in the oppressive environment, and the freedom of the imagination. What you can be pushed to when you’re pushed against.

RH: It always seemed to me quite an expansive, inclusive term. It covers everything from Bomb Squad productions to science fiction novels by Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler.

SW: Yeah it’s definitely the Bomb Squad as much as it’s Sun Ra. Like it’s Jimi Hedrix, Parliament-Funkadelic. But also, women like Betty Davis and just exploratory arts and the way that freedom is expressed when it is not realised except through song and art.

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